Dear Matthew Alice:
While I was waiting for the Tylenol to kick in and stop my headache, I decided to read the ingredient list on the bottle. Active ingredients: Acetaminophen. Inactive ingredients: carnauba wax, cellulose, corn starch, iron oxide, sucralose, talc, titanium dioxide. What? Inactive ingredients? Why are they there if they don’t do anything? Why do I have car wax in my pills?
— Naomi, via email
We’d have an easier time answering this if the research elves weren’t such inactive ingredients. Half of them are hanging out around the wide-screen watching Top Gear. The rest are bugging Grandma Alice for more waffles. They’re contributing nothing here, but we’d be lost without their smiley faces. Same goes for carnauba wax and cornstarch.
The whole point of a Tylenol pill is to deliver to you a tiny dab of easy-to-swallow acetaminophen. But if all they gave you was the fly-speck bit of medicine, you’d have a heck of a time getting one dose out of the bottle. There’d be acetaminophen all over the place — stuck under your fingernails, ground into the carpet, sailing through the air by the open window. What to do? Well, how about mixing the meds into other ingredients that turn nothing into something? The stuff would be inactive (have nothing to do with getting rid of a headache), it would just be stuff that would help move the pills through the manufacturing process and make a coating that’s easy to gulp down. And have no fear. Carnauba is a versatile vegetable wax that can coat your car or, in its food-grade format, your headache pill.
I have a friend who insists he can tell the difference between the smell of his sweat when he exercises and when he’s nervous. Is this possible?
— Abe, North Park
What a fine-nosed friend you have. True enough, we sweat two different kinds of water, but neither one of them has much smell by itself. Eccrine sweat (from glands of the same name) appears all over our bodies when we exercise, but especially in our pits, palms, feet, and foreheads. The stuff is mostly water, salt, urea, and lactic acid. All this is smell-less until it encounters bacteria, which use the moisture to feed, reproduce, and excrete wastes that sorta stink. Apocrine glands, and sweat by the same name, are much sexier. They’re active beginning in puberty and are concentrated in the armpits and groin. The resulting sweat has organic content and also human pheromones, good for attracting the opposite sex assuming you’re not too drenched in eccrine sweat. Again, this sweat has almost no smell of its own but depends on skin bacteria to create a big stink. So, Abe, I can’t prove your friend can tell the difference, but at least he has a little science to back him up.
I think I’ve come up with a great idea for getting rid of the world’s trash. Why don’t we put it all in a volcano. It must be hot enough to get rid of it all. What do you think of the idea?
— JB, via email
Well, I’m glad I didn’t come up with it. Full of holes, unfortunately. See, JB, most of the volcanoes around the globe are mostly just sitting there with plugs of rock in them, so if we filled them full of trash we’d just have a very hard-to-get-to landfill. And once the volcano did blow, it probably would find a weak spot along the side of the cone before it blew the rock plug. If it did shoot the plug, it would be raining Pampers and old mattresses for miles.
So, say we just threw stuff in active cones, the ones with magma near the surface. Good luck finding somebody to run the garbage up there. Active volcanoes spew out lethal gasses and ash that would prevent even a helicopter from depositing our old refrigerators and cat litter over the cone.